In the first three decades of the 20th Century, there was a widespread feeling that film audiences needed to be protected from the “bad examples” provided by representations and narratives on the screen. Film was seen as a “school of vice,” and society had to keep it under control. The warning equally applied to the venues where movies were shown: the darkened theatre also encourages bad conduct. This alarm elicited a sheer condemnation of cinema by intellectuals, educators, politicians, but also prompted research inspired by academic disciplines like sociology and psychology. These works of research were not less aggressive towards cinema, even though they pretended to be unbiased: they were instrumental to the institution of censorship in many countries, including the USA. And yet they aided in the emergence of a new paradigm: the traditional idea that cinema threatens a regulated society with its dangerous representations, and that it must be simply prohibited if we want to restore the lost order, was progressively contrasted by the idea that cinema infects the social body with new models of life-styles that act as something like viruses, and that must be counteracted through appropriate use of movies. The second paradigm implies a process of “self-immunisation” more than a mere repression, and it is much more attuned to a “society of control” than a “disciplinary society.” The fact that cinema enabled the emergence of the second paradigm gives further evidence to cinema’s role in social and epistemological changes.
Francesco Casetti is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of Humanities and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. He is the author of six books and more than sixty essays, including Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2005), and The Lumière Galaxy: Seven Key words for the Cinema to Come (Columbia University Press, 2015). His current research focuses on early film theory, especially the cinephobic stances in the first half of the 20th Century; and on a reconsideration of silver screen that underlines its environmental aspects and the ways in which it becomes a component of our current “mediascapes.”